Why is G.K. Chesterton awesome?
I can answer that question in one word, and that word is mooreeffoc.
I once mentioned that Chesterton pointed out how astonishing it is to see the word mooreeffoc in a shop window until one realizes one is looking at the words coffee room from the wrong side of the glass.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the man whose books are remarkable for showing things from the wrong side of the glass and making even the most ordinary things extraordinary.
I give you Gilbert Keith Chesterton, whom George Bernard Shaw called “a man of colossal genius.”
Chesterton was also a man of colossal size. He once told Shaw, who was evidently a thin gentleman, “To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England.” Shaw replied, “To look at you, anyone would think you have caused it.”
Fortunately, Chesterton’s imagination and sense of humor were no less impressive than his weight.
As I’ve pointed out, good literature is generally depressing. We live in a sad, dark, broken world. Chesterton didn’t deny it. His books acknowledge the darkness in the world, but they never take it lying down.
The heroes of Chesterton’s novels and stories struggle to find light in darkness and meaning in emptiness. One of my favorite sayings—one I quote in my novel, in fact—comes from Chesterton: “Always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do?” Chesterton’s poets, priests and revolutionaries never lose their courage, hope or sense of humor.
Chesterton has a fantastic trick of setting up circumstances that seem bizarre or impossible, and then providing a staggeringly simple explanation. I can’t give examples without spoiling surprises, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Read nearly any Father Brown story and you’ll see what I mean.
The characters in Chesterton’s books occasionally do ridiculous things very seriously. They often know something the reader does not, and an action that seems absurd may turn out to be quite sensible when an explanation is given. The reactions of other characters to these sanely insane people is delightful.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chesterton is his passion for paradoxes. In his books, the villain may turn out to be a good person. The detective might be the criminal, or the criminal might be an innocent man. Things are seldom what they seem.
Chesterton’s literary style is marvelous. Some readers may find his writing a little dense—he doesn’t hesitate to use words like conviviality and attenuated—but his novels manage to be both comfortably prosaic and vividly poetic.
No writer is perfect, and Chesterton has his weak points. While his dialogue is clever, it’s usually clever in exactly the same way from character to character. In one of his novels, there’s a chapter in which testimonies are given from unrelated people on several continents—a French innkeeper, a Russian stationmaster, an Asian monk and an American tavern-keeper—and they’re all meditatively poetic.
Chesterton also values ideas over perfect realism, and some of his stories are a bit unbelievable.
In the end, however, minor flaws like these are pardonable. Chesterton’s characters may sound too much like Chesterton, but he’s such an engaging writer that it hardly matters. Chesterton’s stories may not be strictly realistic, but they’re awfully good stories.
I occasionally listen to audiobooks on my iPod as I work overnight shifts at my job. About a week ago, I was listening to The Napoleon of Notting Hill, in which one of Chesterton’s characters is able, so to speak, to see everything from the wrong side of the glass.
In that character’s eyes, a fence is not a fence, but a row of iron spears guarding a house from intruders. A drugstore is not a drugstore, but an alchemist’s storeroom bursting with mysterious remedies and miraculous cures. A toyshop is not a toyshop, but an allegory of everything important in life: families, expressed by dolls; conflict, symbolized by tin soldiers; survival, represented by Noah’s Arks; work, embodied in building blocks; and more.
I finished the audiobook, put away my iPod and decided to take a break from my work. Sitting beside a window, I gazed out into the rainy night. A storefront across the street was lit by a lonely light bulb.
As I looked at it, the storefront was not a storefront. It was a defiant spark burning against the cold, wet night. It was an island of light in vast, empty ocean of darkness. It was a welcoming beacon for the wet, weary traveler.
I didn’t mean to be poetic. Chesterton had rubbed off on me. Quite by accident, I saw that storefront from the wrong side of the glass.
For someone who has never read anything by G.K. Chesterton, I recommend the Father Brown stories: particularly the early ones. Father Brown is my favorite fictional character—period. He’s generally taken for a well-intentioned but superstitious simpleton. Then, when dark mysteries baffle everyone, he humbly, almost apologetically, solves them.
Chesterton also wrote some excellent novels. I recommend The Man Who Was Thursday (which has a manly protagonist and needs to be made into a movie), a thriller bursting with intrigue, swordfights, conspiracies, high-speed chases and… theological allegory. I’ve read many books, and not one has kept me hooked quite like The Man Who Was Thursday.
For those who prefer their novels less metaphysical, The Club of Queer Trades is a lighter story about a man’s odd encounters with a club with one rule for membership: every member must make his living by inventing an entirely unique kind of work.
In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, G.K. Chesterton is awesome.